Re: Senge/Simon on LO in SF LO3749

Art Kleiner (
Sat, 18 Nov 1995 09:54:02 -0500

Replying to LO3719 --

At 7:37 PM 11/14/95, Mulligan, Margie wrote:

>1. Do any of you create, archive & use learning histories? How?

Margie, as you may know, George Roth and I -- and a group of "learning
history pioneers" -- are trying to develop some standards for learning
history practice. Between the Center for Organizational Learning and a
separate training program we ran recently, we know of about 20 "learning
history" projects in one stage or another. We are personally involved in
about six or seven of these.

There may be other projects going on using the name "learning history" that
we don't know much about. There are certainly projects going on that write
up oral histories of peoples' experiences in TQ efforts, though I suspect
there aren't many such projects. Like you, I would be grateful to hear of

We're coming to think that a number of generic principles apply to learning
history work, which are extremely important. Rather than speak for George
and the other "pioneers," I'll just list the principles that are most
important to me personally:

throughout the organization all have a piece of the puzzle, but they lack
systematic ways to combine their understanding together into a single
story. Learning histories represent an alternative to calling in outside
consultants to tell the organization what it already knows.

learning history process, to develop interviews, workshops, and even the
learning history team's own process, as reflective experiences that draw
managers to consider the ramifications of their own efforts. We prefer
that a learning history not be sent out as a report, but rather be used as
a spur to better conversations in deliberately designed workshops.

3. PERSPECTIVE COMES FROM MANY SOURCES. We favor the "jointly told tale" -
a term borrowed from anthropologist John Van Maanen -- as a vehicle for
combining the managers' own perceptions with the "expert" learning
historian's perceptions. The jointly told tale simply means that neither
the anthropologist (the business academic) nor the "natives" (the managers
who are being studied) have the whole story. They need to tell it
together, in an explicit way so that the reader can see whose perspective
is present in which part of the text. This gives the story validity. We
work a lot with telling the story through edited, fact-checked quotes.

4. LEARNING INVOLVES PAIN. Learning Histories bring out difficult, tough
stories that have been swept under the rug -- and try to do so in a way
that the organization can hear. In our interviews, we feel it is crucial
to get as many perspectives as possible on painful situations: The
enthusiasts, the skeptics, the senior managers -- or, as David Kantor puts
it, the initiators, the opposers, the followers, the bystanders... We want
to hear from all of them and have all of them fairly represented in the

trying to deliberately balance three imperatives in our work: The
pragmatic (telling the story so that managers can accept it and work with
it), the research (telling a story which can be validated with the "data"
of interviews and observations), and the mythic (telling a story which is
powerful, compelling, and pure because it is true to the story's own
needs.) No one can think all three ways at once; you have to cycle between

6. THE LEARNING HISTORY PROCESS IS COMPLEX. Our experiences have shown
that it requires champions at senior levels who understand the value of
systematized reflection; that it should involve outside and inside people
working on a team together; that it demands a deliberate understanding
between the manager of a learning project (inside manager or outside
consultant, or both) and the learning historian who is supposed to report
on it; that the learning historian often gets drawn into a role as the
pilot team's "father or mother confessor," which may or may not be

In short, we're still learning the ramifications of this new approach. We
have seen great interest and enthusiasm by people in companies who receive
the learning histories -- they really do seem to be safe ways to state
difficult subjects so a large group of people can learn from one team's
experience. But the practice needs to be better understood. More projects
need to be developed which can really explore the value of learning
histories and illuminate possible pitfalls.

I hope that answers question #1. So far, no learning histories are
archived because they go too deeply into the companies' story to be made
publicly available. At some point, that may change -- if only with the
companies' identities disguised.

Art Kleiner,